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Why leadership development has to happen on the job

March 21, 2016
Borderless Leadership

At a recent leadership summit we held at Twitter with 100 of our top global leaders, our agenda was to talk about our strategic direction and get aligned as a leadership team. Then, the day before the summit, news leaked of several executive departures. The context of our discussions had shifted.

You’ve surely experienced such context shifts as a leader yourself. Over the last 10 years we’ve seen the command-and-control style of leadership give way to a flatter, more collaborative approach. I’m now seeing another shift happening — to more and more discussion of contextual leadership. As Tony Mayo, director of the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School, has put it, “Success in the 21st century will require leaders to pay attention to the evolving context” a business is operating in. Contextual leaders facilitate adapting to change by helping their people understand the nature of new challenges and opportunities and how to address them in the moment.

Why are we hearing more and more about the importance of “context” now? One reason is that the context around us seems to be shifting more rapidly, due in part to major technological shifts. This means more of us are operating in more contexts, more of the time. To take a simple example, when you’re in touch with your colleagues on Slack or Google Hangouts outside of normal work hours, you’re operating in multiple contexts — “work” and “personal” — at once. At work alone, though, contexts have proliferated and shifted as well. For instance, more of us work with more people, as technology has opened up collaboration to more people, departments, and business units. More of us work on cross-functional teams or across time zones. A 2014 research study by CEB showed that 60% of people coordinate with at least 10 people daily in their work.

This means that leaders have to be aware of all these contexts — and more — as they try to move projects forward. For example, at Twitter we wanted to transform our feedback and talent management processes, and we wanted to involve cross-functional teams from all across the company, including designers, engineers, and data scientists. Despite being in different buildings, different time zones, and even different countries, everyone always knew the project status, which decisions were open, and when we’d reached milestones. That’s an accomplishment of contextual leadership, as well as smart use of technology tools.

To help develop a workforce’s contextual leadership skills, those of us responsible for training and developing our firms’ next leaders have to think a little differently about learning. Organizational learning has to become less about the kind of learning done in a training session or online tutorial and more about continuous learning on the job. That means creating a work environment that supports and encourages learning, one that’s less about individuals learning new skills on their own, and more about using their environment to learn and learning from one another.

Done right, this kind of learning teaches employees new skills and results in knowledge being shared across the company. Perhaps even more importantly, it also satisfies the deep desire expressed by so many employees to be part of something bigger. In the past, people I managed preferred to focus their time and energy on work they could take sole ownership of; now people emphasize their desire to work on projects that they can see will make a significant difference — for their own growth and for the company’s.

Once the context shifted at our summit, we could have continued with the agenda as planned, but we instead chose to address the departures and all the issues they raised. The conversations that ensued were more candid than any I’d experienced in my career. We directly addressed the challenges of the new situation, engaging in healthy debate that balanced, as one leader put it, “optimism with sober reality.” At the end of the two days, we were aligned around a clear set of priorities and were inspired about our future. We were also better prepared to provide context to our teams about the challenges and opportunities ahead and to inspire them in turn.

Technology tools are evolving, and the way we work and learn must also evolve. People’s desire for more inclusion and agency and the increasingly rapid evolution of the business landscape both require that we find ways to create more collaborative teams, facilitate richer, more continuous learning, and involve all employees in their quest to adapt and seize the abundant opportunities our fast-changing world offers.

Melissa Daimler currently heads the Global Learning & Organizational Development team @Twitter, integrating interests in learning, coaching, and organizational dynamics into a career. Follow Melissa @mdaimler

Source: Harvard Business Review

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